Ep. 37 – Tim Huff – Cultivating Compassion In Our Kids And Culture
- Looking at compassion through the lens of homelessness.
- Alternatives to telling our children not to stare.
- The hope of children for a compassionate future.
In this episode, author and social justice activist Tim Huff discusses compassion through the lens of his three decades serving the homeless on the streets of Toronto. Tim believes bringing children into conversations on social concern is key to how we develop and build our cultural capacity for compassion. Tim speaks internationally to students and school boards using a program called The Compassion Series.
Tim HuffTim Huff lives on the front lines of social challenge, working between the busy and complex intersections of justice and compassion. After three decades of active involvement on the streets of Toronto, Tim now speaks internationally to students, staffs and school boards, believing bringing children into the conversation on social concern is key to building our cultural capacity for compassion.
Tim is the author/illustrator of an award winning children’s books series on compassion, including The Cardboard Shack Beneath The Bridge. He is also the author of books for adults, including Bent Hope, a collection of stories from his years as a frontline street worker.
Transcript: Ep. 37 – Tim Huff – Cultivating Compassion In Kids And Culture
Rachel Cram – Well Tim Huff thank you so much for speaking with me today. Knowing what you do, I’m mindful of your time and I’m very grateful for this interview and conversation.
Tim Huff – It is a real honor to get this opportunity. Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Oh, you’re so welcome. I’ve found your books and educational materials compelling. It was a pleasure researching your work and I’m eager to hear what you have to say as we talk together.
Tim Huff – That’s so kind. Thank you.
Rachel Cram – So, I know your teaching on compassion and social justice prompts a range of conversations and considerations, but I was thinking we might start this conversation with your street work with the homeless in Toronto, if you see that as a good path forward?
Tim Huff – In North America, this conversation about homelessness is a good way forward. People are least compassionate about this subject. Of all the areas they’re least compassionate about, it’s about homelessness.
Rachel Cram – Ok, well then let’s talk about that, and then we can move into your most recent work in elementary schools with your Compassion Series. Do you feel that sets the stage well for where you want to go?
Tim Huff – That sounds perfect.
Rachel Cram – Excellent. I’ll start with a question about your childhood because it’s a question that makes people connect to you as a fellow human being, when we go back to our childhood. I think it’s just a good rooting question.
Tim Huff – Sure, great.
Rachel Cram – So here it is. Often our childhoods, the positive and the negative, they come together to shape who we are as adults. And so Tim, I’m wondering for you, is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the highly compassionate adult that you are today?
Tim Huff – Absolutely. I’m from a blue collar family. You know, we didn’t have a lot of resources in our home. My parents were young parents raising their family. But you know my folks came home everyday from work and they were so part of serving the community. Still did kids groups and kids clubs and Meals on Wheels and whatever was going on through the church or the food bank, they just served and served and served. So there was this model that said, ‘You don’t have to have a lot to be someone who is serving and thinking of other people.’
So I take no credit for that. But I give all that credit to my folks and they still serve in that capacity in their 80s. They’re just always thinking and serving other people even now. So it’s their lifelong legacy.
Rachel Cram – Wow, what a beautiful legacy and I bet they’re equally proud of you and what you do.
Tim Huff – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well, I have here in front of me your award winning children’s book The Cardboard Shack Beneath The Bridge, which is part of your Compassion Series for children. I thought a good way maybe, to start into our conversation, would be to read some of the really thought provoking questions that you list at the back of the book, to hear the answers that you might give to some of these questions.
Tim Huff – Yeah. I actually take that book into schools and teach it to classes all the way from kindergarten up to Grade 7 and 8. So sure, glad to do it.
Rachel Cram – OK OK. Here’s the first question you ask this, “Sometimes under bridges or near the main streets of cities or towns you’ll see things that look like cardboard or wooden shacks or even old tents. Perhaps you’ve seen an empty sleeping bag, along with someone’s belongings, tucked away in a place that looks a bit scary. Who do you think might live there? How did you feel when you saw it?”
So Tim, from your experience who does live there?
Tim Huff – Predominantly, I would say those are chronic homeless or hidden homeless people. So, lots of teenagers and lots of adults and even lots of seniors. Every single person has a different story. Every single person. So all homeless people or all people who are in encampments or in cardboard shacks are uniquely different. But what I do say is this, None of them, when they were little boys or little girls, dreamt that this would be where they would be. This was not the wish or the dream of their lives.
Rachel Cram – What do you mean by hidden homeless?
Tim Huff – So hidden homeless is the group of people that I worked with the most. They are not usually counted by the stats because they’re not going into shelters. Many of them have been so physically, sexually, emotionally, abused that they they won’t go into wider communities where you would see them and so they hide out in encampments and in places away. The hidden homeless are who I work with, predominantly under bridges in forested areas places like that.
Rachel Cram – So how do they sustain themselves then, like, I’m thinking even food or clothes or even money?
Tim Huff – Well, they might pan for change in the day. They might go to a place for some food, a church or something like that or a mission that’s serving but then they don’t want to sleep somewhere where it’s public, where they can be kicked or hurt or things like that. So they hide away.
Rachel Cram – When you’re saying shelters are not a viable option, this could bring to mind for some people, that phrase of Scrooge where he says, “Have they no refuge or resource or are there no prisons or workhouses?”
And I think that we can hold ourselves back from saying those Scrooge kind of things but we can wonder. We can wonder, why don’t they access governmental or charitable resources that we might see as viable.
Tim Huff – Yeah. So if you couldn’t trust Mom or Dad to inherently not hurt you, why would you go into a facility and trust a total stranger? So there’s that to consider. I’m not saying that’s always the case but I’ve known so many young people have told me. I say, “How come you’re not going into the shelter system? It’s freezing cold. You need to take care of yourself.”
And they had been so abused, so hurt, that the idea of being in the care of strangers or among other strangers, or closed in; they feel again, safer on the streets than they even do in the shelters. And then a lot of people say, “Well we should just scoop up the people. They don’t know any better, especially the ones with severe mental unwellness and put them in there. And then, I have all kinds of friends who are shelter workers who, they’re not there to be prison guards and to hold people in. So there’s no perfect answer. The real answer is to do everything we can but to get in front of the issue as well.
Rachel Cram – Well, and your response here speaks to the second part of your question you ask kids to ponder when they see a sleeping bag and someone’s belongings tucked away, which is, “How do you feel when you see a situation like that?” And, I imagine for you Tim, your feelings have probably changed somewhat over the years when you see an encampment or a sleeping bag on the side of the road. What do you feel?
Tim Huff – I feel brokenhearted because the stats and the numbers, they get worse and worse. I really think we’ve not, as a nation, fully understood why this is happening. We have no poverty of resources. We could feed and clothe and shelter every person in the country many times over. We have the funds in our country to do that but there’s a poverty of relationships. And this is the heartbreak. Now for me, when I work with homeless youth, so as young as twelve and up to twenty five are the kids that I work with, nine out of ten of those kids felt safer on the streets than in their homes because they had been sexually or physically or emotionally abused.
Rachel Cram – Somewhere in, I think it was your book Bent Hope, you made the comment that a lot of youth are homeless before their house-less.
Tim Huff – That’s right.
Rachel Cram – And I think that ties in a little bit with what you’re saying right now. They may be in an environment that includes a house but it might not be a place where they necessarily feel safe. It’s not a home.
Tim Huff – Yeah, well a lot of people would guess that most people who are homeless come from poor homes. And my experience has been that while that is true, not having resources and being cared for does push people to have to do things and be places they don’t want to be and live how they don’t want to live, I’ve known many many young people on the streets who came from extremely wealthy homes but they were in abusive homes.
So what I’m teaching to kids, for example, grade five and six, I’ll say, “Tell me what your house looks like.”
And they will say, “Well it’s got this colored roof. It’s got this many steps in the front porch. You’ve got this many rooms in the house.”
Okay that’s the place you live. And now tell me what home means to you. What does it mean when you say I feel so at home?
And at that age they would understand. They start to say,“It’s a place I belong. It’s a place I feel happy. It’s a place I smile and laugh a lot,” and then we are able to have the conversation. That is the difference between houselessness and homelessness. We have to just not assume that anyone we might see on the streets, they’re all this way or they all came from this place.
Musical Interlude #1
Rachel Cram – Perhaps we can dig into this a little bit further later on. But even thinking of that wider parameter of what it means to be homeless, I do think when we’re talking to children or even as parents ourselves, recognizing that there may be children in our kids classes that are feeling homeless even though they still have a house. And perhaps not being a parent or a child that’s always looking for the shiny happy people to bring home. But maybe looking for somebody who’s that kind of homeless, that you can befriend.
Tim Huff – Yeah. I get the opportunity to speak at a fair number of conferences for educators. And I talk about the school being a surrogate home for a lot of young people. Which means they might not feel like they belong when they’re at home but for six hours a day they have a place they belong or they can laugh and they can feel good. And I know a lot of educators have not entered in thinking about school as surrogate home. But culture and times have changed and I think it’s imperative that that is part of the conversation.
Rachel Cram – Well and that has been one of the tragedies of COVID, is children not having that.
Tim Huff – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – I think in Canada they’re saying something like two hundred thousand kids have fallen off the grid of school from the COVID crisis.
Tim Huff – It’s terrifying.
Rachel Cram – Yeah it is. OK, well let’s look at another question from your book, The Cardboard Shack. You ask children this question and consideration. “In this picture you will see a man with his hat in his hand. He is hoping that someone might give him some money. That is often called “panhandling” or “panning.” Some people think that is ok and many people give a few coins. Many people are uncomfortable with it and do like people asking for money. Whether you and the grown-up you are with decide to give some money or not – it is always good to smile and let the person know that you see them. That shows respect.”
So Tim, for you, when you see somebody panhandling at the side of the street. What’s your response? Like is it a good idea to give money? Because, I think that’s a question that goes through people’s minds, especially when you drive by with your kids in the car because we’re role modeling a response, whether we giving money or not, often not knowing what the response should be. How do you respond? They’re right there beside you.
Tim Huff – Yeah, my answer, which could be scrutinized by other frontline workers but I’m telling you this is twenty-five years of experience, this is what I tell people. “Make sure you’re safe in what you do,” and then I tell people to follow their heart. If you feel in your heart that you need to give, then give. If you don’t, then don’t. The real issue is dignity and respect. You know in the era I grew up in, the polite thing to do if you saw a homeless person, was to pretend you didn’t see them. You know, moms and dads say, “Look away,” they hold their kids hands. “Look away and just don’t stare.” And I understand that there was some attempt at dignity there but the kids weren’t getting the answers. And so then they were just left with assumption and fear and wondering what’s going on. And that just made that person a terrifying person to them and creates such a massive us and them scenario for kids to grow up with.
So even to this day, I give people money sometimes but I listen to their story for a while. I’m usually in a public place where it’s safe and I can have a safe distance and have a conversation. I know many people offer to feed someone or to go get them something. So there’s no perfect answer but I’m not one of the people who says definitely do not do it.
But let me tell you Rachel, I do tell people this, if you are really burdened by this, put a jar on your kitchen counter and every time you decide not to give a homeless person some change, when you go home put the change in that jar. Then at the end of the month or the end of the year, do it with your kids or whatever, take that jar and give it to a mission that you feel absolutely great about, that you know it won’t be used for drugs or something that you’re uncomfortable with but it will be used for all the protections and cares that you feel good about. It’s the idea that we do nothing that is a real issue.
Rachel Cram – I love that suggestion. Thank you. I’m going to get a jar.
So, where I live, we’ve just gone through a very cold spell, alot of snow.
Tim Huff – Same here.
Rachel Cram – I think often when we have these severe weather conditions, we think of homeless people because we’re so thankful to be inside. You mention the heat, especially in places like Toronto, is actually even more difficult than the cold. And you tell a really moving story about a boy named Thomas and I’m wondering would you want to share that story because I think it embodies much of what you’ve been saying.
Tim Huff – Sure. I mean, particularly in the ice cold winter or boiling hot summers, when we think about homeless, we do tend to go straight to the idea of how physically they’re surviving. But imagine the mental expense to be out there as well on top of it. And so the story you’re referring to, Thomas, he was kind of dealing with both the physical trauma with the outdoors but the emotional trauma from the world that he fled from.
So, it was a record heat in Toronto and if you knew the Toronto area there’s a place called the Don River and one of the main arteries of traffic goes alongside it. Anyway, there’s a whole waterway and green space there. And he was encamped in there. And we hadn’t had rain in ages. We had this, I think they call it a macro burst, where the rain just comes down in buckets. And the flooding ends up like insane. Well when I came upon him on that day, when I was out looking for him, the rain had ended but the pools and the ponding and the flooding and the dips along the Don River was magnificent. And he was sitting on a rock just bawling. The rain had come so quickly that all his belongings were now gone. They’d all drifted away, they were down in the water and he had been swimming around trying to find them. So I promised him, I said,
“Listen man, we’ll get you new stuff. We’ll get you better stuff. Don’t worry about that part, I know that’s hard.”
It took him a long time to express why he was just so devastated. But you know he had some treasured belongings that he lost there. And among the few treasured things he had was a picture of his sister. She was 14 years old, two years younger than him and she had fled the abusive home before he had. When his dad was drunk she couldn’t handle it anymore. So she took a picture of herself and wrote on the back, “I’ll die here. One day come and find me. I love you.”
And then when he fled he took that picture with him. Well, he lost that picture. He lost this beautiful, priceless, sacred thing that he could look at and read and it was gone. So we processed that, I walked with him through that as best I could, the heartbreak and everything. So anyways, Hurricane Katrina came days later and he was so moved by the fact that people were becoming homeless because of the hurricane. So he was so excited he surprised me and said, “Look what I’ve done.”
He showed me a coffee cup full of change and then he showed me the sign that went with it. It said, “For Katrina’s homeless, because it hurts to lose everything.”
He was out there panning for change for other communities of people that had lost. I can’t tell you how many stories of young people I know or adults on the street who take care of each other. Their compassion for one another, their caring for one another is profound.
I used to see it in the crack houses all the time. I used to go into crack houses looking for young people I knew that were stuck in some of the sexual exploits and the drugs and stuff like that. Even in there, there were older guys who were really messed up but they would say you know that thirteen year old, he’s back in the corner. You need to go get him out. Even in their despair they were wanting to care for the other ones. There’s a whole world of beautiful people that we are not getting to experience because of their brokenness.
Rachel Cram – As you talk about this, what comes to my mind are signs that I’ve often seen, ones like you’re describing with Thomas, ones that say things like, “God bless.” Now, I’m embarrassed to say this but sometimes I’ve felt a little cynical about those signs, seeing them as slightly coercive. And sometimes that is probably the intent, but obviously that is not always the case.
Tim Huff – Yeah. Imagine someone who’s living on the street at ground level is looking up at you and actually espousing the idea that God would bless you. I think all those little signs, I think they’re tokens I think there are things we need to take to heart. Now are there people being coercive with their signs? There are people trying to survive. And whether you see that sign as a blessing to you on a day you need to be told ‘God bless you,’ or whether you are able to acknowledge someone is trying to survive. And instead of saying like ‘f – off ‘and ‘get out of my way,’ they’re saying God bless you. And there’s something beautiful about that to me.
Musical Interlude #2
Rachel Cram – There’s a question that you pose to kids, from your book that I think might connect in here. You refer to a picture. You say, “Here in this picture you’ll see the two men are sitting with their dog. Often people who are homeless have pets. If you were homeless would you want to have a pet. Why? How might a pet be helpful? Is there any reason why having a pet might not be a good idea for a person who is homeless?”
That’s a good question Tim. I can see kids really engaging with it. It engages me. What kinds of answers do you get?
Tim Huff – Well, it’s fascinating, This is perhaps one of the most fascinating teaching moments with this book. And we have to be careful how we express this to small children. But, “How many of you, if you had to sleep on the sidewalk tonight, would want to have a pet with you?”
We just ask the question and ask them to put their hands up. I’m telling you, if it’s not 100 percent it’s ninety nine percent of the kids put their hand up. And so then we ask, “Why?”
And they give the answers so purely, “Because if I was scared it would take care of me,” and “Because I would have someone to talk to and someone to love.”
And it’s amazing how some kids will say, “Someone who can love me.” Which is a beautiful response. So we go to that place and then compassionately people at least have a concept in their head that this is why this is occurring.
Then as you read, we go to the next question which is, “So why is it a bad idea?” Well where is the dog going to relieve itself? And what if they need a vet and if you can’t feed yourself how can you feed your pet? And all kinds of things. But because we’ve gone through the first lens before we got to the second harder edged question, it’s so much gentler than if we started with, “Why is it a bad idea to have a pet on the street?”
They answer so gently and children actually try to problem solve. How could you have a pet and not have all these issues?
I’ve known people with rats and iguanas. It’s not just dogs. Countless people have mice in their pockets that they care for or keep because there’s something life giving, their something they can take care of. You know, we all long to be in a relationship and this is a relationship that won’t hurt us. You know some missions when we are running a program called Light Patrol we actually had pet food donated to us so we could help take care of the pets. So, it is a complex conversation and I’m just saying we have to have it compassionately and we have to have it thoughtfully.
It’s all about cherishing one another. I think it’s the great common denominator for all of humankind, this deep soulful desire to be cherished.
Rachel Cram – When I think of the responses that children offer to your questions Tim, it brings to mind this quote from Mahatma Gandhi that we use as inspiration to this podcast and he says, “If we want to reach peace in the world, we must begin with the children.”
Tim Huff – Well, that’s beautiful.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it is. And I think you’re doing that. I love how this question gives kids a chance to express the desire to be cherished, as you’re saying. Even to recognize that desire in themselves.
Tim Huff – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – Now, I’m not sure how this works as a question, but when you’re working Tim, or when you’re with people on the streets do you sense that desire for connection?
Tim Huff – We tend not to say, “Work with homeless people.” The terminology is always changing. Most recent terminology in my world would be, “Serve among homeless people.”
Rachel Cram – I was wondering about that. Yeah.
Tim Huff – The language is always changing. It’s impossible to keep up.
Rachel Cram – But it’s important.
Tim Huff – But we’re always trying to do the right thing. But it’s important right? Yeah. And so we’re always trying to do the right thing.
Anyway, I’ll give you an example. I started doing a Santa Claus gig when my little girl was three and now she’s 27 and I’m a grandpa and I still do these Santa gigs. So I do them all over. But
Rachel Cram – You wear a lot of hats and beards.
Tim Huff – That’s right. And so the Santa things become larger than I ever imagined it would. But always on Christmas Eve I go out on the street as Santa. And you know on Christmas Eve when you go downtown, Yonge Street might be a little bit busy but all the side streets, everywhere else is abandoned because tourists aren’t out and business are closed and people are with families and stuff like that.
And a lot of our homeless friends that end up remaining on the streets are very stoned or very drunk, have severe mental illnesses and so they’ve not ended up in a shelter or couch surfing or somewhere else. So they’re out there in dire situations. And what do you think someone who is really not in their best space thinks when they see Santa walking towards them in the middle of a park? For the most part many of them actually believe I’m Santa? They talked to me as though I’m Santa. Anyway, Santa is kind of this cherished supernatural figure to them. And I always joke, it’s the one point in time I actually feel like I am Santa, like I don’t want to blow it is what I mean, like as opposed to a guy who has no acting chops who just seems to have fell into this. But it’s quite something because I’ll spend time, I brought gifts or supplies and the one thing that happens when people have no facade, so the alcohol is taken over, the drugs taking over, and their mind is not as healthy as it might have been.
They sit and they talk to Santa about when they were a kid and inevitably they start to tell me stories. They’ll tell me stories about sitting on their grandfather’s knee while he played the piano and they sang Christmas carols together. Or baking cookies with their mom, or going to a Christmas Eve church service with a parent. And they share all these beautiful stories with tears in their eyes and sometimes inebriated and all kinds of things but they always go back to this place of where they’re cherished because I think when things are stripped away from us, when all our pride and ego and the things that sometimes hold us back, we all have that in our soul, to say, “I want to be cherished.”
And I think it’s what is missed when we look at programs and how we spend our money. The real question is, ‘How are we going to cherish people?’ And it means just being with them right where they’re at right now and that includes relief work and relief work is about cherishing.
Musical Interlude #3 – 28:45
Thanks for listening to family360. I’m Rachel Cram and today we are with author and social justice educator Tim Huff.
Our next episode is with Dr Lacy Finn Borgo discussing spiritual conversations with children; how we support our kids in experiencing wonder and connection with nature, others and themselves. Join us!
And now back to our conversation with Tim Huff who is about to tell a poignant story from his award winning book Bent Hope.
Rachel Cram – You mention, I’m going to see if I can actually find the quote here right now. You make this comment about people as they walk by others on the streets. It brings to mind the story of the Good Samaritan. You say, “I always wonder why they don’t wonder,” commenting on the people that walk by, “maybe they do.” and then you say, “While most children are authentic enough to stare wide eyed, point and look terrified, the extreme opposite response from most adults is almost comical.”
You have this story about a girl named Amy and it’s a disturbing story. But I think it’s a reminder of how we don’t recognize that need for cherishing as something that is common to all of us.
Tim Huff – Yeah that is truly a heartbreaking story. It’s interesting you bring that story up. This is the depth of a lot of the stories of the friends I’ve had on the street and my experience among them.
So, I used to put my kids to bed with my wife and then I would go out and work through the night.
And, so one night I was coming towards Amy in downtown Toronto and it was kind of off the beaten track and there were some university students, four university students, I could see them getting right near to her as she sat on the curb and started to hassle her and nudged with her knees and pushed her and teaser and they were drunk out of their minds.
And I just had this welling up that something bad was going to go on. You could just see it and she was sitting with her head down and they were being so abusive just in their comments and pushing against her and stuff. And then the unthinkable happened. One of them actually opened his fly and he urinated on her. In his inebriation and with the coaxing of these other guys. And she just sat there and took it.
And now I’m racing down the road to get to where it is and everything I’d ever learned about de-escalating a situation was gone from me. I just ran into all four guys, flailing to make a scene and fists throwing and all kinds of stuff that might even get you fired nowadays from a job but I just couldn’t take it. And those guys took off after that. They left, still laughing and drunk. They could care less. And she sat there and wiped her head with her sleeve and just went on to the next thing. How broken do you have to be that you would process someone urinating on you as just another thing to get through.
Now for me, I didn’t know that I handled it right. Even as I look back on it now it’s traumatic for me, I can’t imagine what it is for her. But we need to consider that there are countless Amy’s on the street who have been so broken that even something so vile would just pass by as another moment in another day.
Rachel Cram – I think most of us are angered by injustices and we want to bring about change, but then the next steps don’t occur because we get stuck in knowing how or whether we can make a difference.
You make this comment in your book, I’m just going to find it. You say this, “Long before our biases and jaded opinions develop, long before we categorize people with labels and by issues, we all start in the same place, with a wide eyed innocence and acceptance of childhood.”
So Tim, I’m wondering, what is your mission for bringing compassion to children?
Tim Huff – What a beautiful question. Thank you for that. The ultimate mission is that we could raise a generation that would look through what we might call social justice issues or humanitarian issues, first and foremost through the lens of compassion. They don’t jump straight to judgment and fear and assumption. And so how do we have our children look through the lens of compassion first and foremost, is the idea that grown ups, adults, teachers, parents, grandparents, they need to be willing to learn with their children. You cannot teach compassion if you do not live compassionately. This is not a math topic that you say, here you go. This plus this equals this. You have to live it out and our kids can read it. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know the answer. Let’s explore this together.”
And that brings us as adults to this really humble place that will allow us to become compassionate. But as soon as we are marred by our own jaded feelings about a situation, without becoming truly educated on the topic because we’ve been brought up to think this way or the media we listen to leans into this kind of theory, I don’t know how we raise compassionate children. The great void in society is gentleness and goodness. If I was to say, “What do I think children are missing most,” I would say gentleness and goodness. We are not being examples of that. And so I think we got to ask hard questions of one another and of ourselves. It’s imperative that we look at the world through our children’s eyes first and foremost and say, “How are we going to let them see this world?”
I’ll never forget the time I was speaking in a class. I look a bit scruffy and I’m usually just wearing jeans, a baseball hat and long hair and a beard. And I did an entire class for, I think it was grade twos and threes, and then at the end we had a question and answer time and one of the kids asked, “How long have you been homeless?”
It was such a beautiful moment of me getting to explain that I wasn’t, but the idea that when we give kids a chance to ask their questions, this child was willing to go any place with the question. We have to find safe, healthy ways to let kids go anywhere with their questions if it directs them down the way of what’s a compassionate answer for this. Not a simple answer and not a bleeding heart answer but a compassionate answer. Understanding what compassion actually means.
Rachel Cram – What does compassion actually mean? How do you define it?
Tim Huff – Well, compassion, you know, the calm means together or with and passion means to endure or to suffer. We want to not just feel something, not to just feel empathy or sympathetic, we want them to go to the next place and have that sympathy or empathy cause them to do something different with the opportunities in front of them.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. What do you see Tim as the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion?
Tim Huff – Well I think sympathy is about understanding that others are suffering. Empathy is the starting place of compassion. It’s more about the ability to take new or caring perspectives and or feel the emotions of others. But compassion is putting that empathy into action, including a strong desire to now help to be part of the answer.
Again understanding that compassion means to endure which; means we walk alongside each other. And so we don’t just want kids to feel bad about this situation we want them to ask, “I wonder how people can help? How we’re going to be that for one another?
Musical Interlude #4
Rachel Cram – Earlier you made the comment about terminology and how language is always changing. I wonder if we get to sympathy and empathy and sometimes mistakenly think we’ve then arrived at compassion, that we are compassionate people, but we’ve actually stalled out before the action starts. Before the compassion begins.
Tim Huff – That’s a great response.
Rachel Cram – And I know for myself, there are so many options for what I can lean into with my kids, directions we can head, opportunities to explore. And I really believe that compassion is what we want for our kids more than anything.
So I just see this conversation as so important. What do we lean into with our children? What do we spend our time doing with our children?
I wonder if there are practical experiences that you could suggest for parents to do with their children that provide them opportunities to actually be acting in a compassionate manner, not just talking about it, not just feeling about it, but doing something.
Tim Huff – Sure. I remember when I was little, my parents would make food to take other people. I went with them and watched them engage and I, as a little boy, I actually felt part of it.
I talk at the end of Bent Hope about what a kitchen table revolution is. And that’s actually what we need across North America, is a kitchen table revolution.
Rachel Cram – Ok, this sounds good. What is it?
Tim Huff – Well, what happens at the kitchen table is actually what matters most for most of us in our life. That’s where we talk about kid’s report cards. And that’s what we talk about what sports we’re gonna do and what holidays we’re gonna take. Whatever it is. That also needs to be the place where the conversation looks like, “We know that your friend down the street is having a hard time, how are we going to do something for that family? We know that people in our community are going through this or the school is going through that. What can we do as a family?”
So you as a parent would engage with your child in the conversations that are right there. So the world looks massive and terrifying and what are we going to do about all these things? Well what are you going to do about the neighborhood and the families and the relationships you have? And so the children will come up with all kinds of answers. Maybe we could do this. “Maybe we could bake together. Maybe we could make cards together. I know those seem like small things but they are the impetus for what comes next. Because they start a relationship, which is where we started, with poverty of relationships. They deepen the relationships where maybe other people will be trusting enough to say, “I could actually use some help with this,” so we can walk through it.
Rachel Cram – Well, part of the beauty in a plan like this is it goes back to that ‘begin with the children’ concept of Gandhi. As a culture or a society, we could do with some fresh new ideas on the social justice table. And our kids, just like they understand technology in a way that we likely never will, they’ll understand social justice in a way we never likely will because they’re living into a different time.
Tim Huff – Absolutely
Rachel Cram – In your experience of social justice, conversations and actions towards that. What are we missing?
Tim Huff – Well, the conversation of justice is a wild one. I’ll tell you, I’ve fed a lot of homeless people. I’ve started programs that feed homeless people and I’ve been critiqued that I’m an enabler of people staying homeless. Of course if you feed and clothe them you’re gonna make it easier for them to stay there. And my version of justice is, I don’t know man. it’s hard to think straight when you haven’t had something to eat. I think we need to feed them.
Justice also looks like this; and it says, some people hunger for food and some people are hungry for something that’s not food; love compassion, belonging belonging, belonging.
Rachel Cram – Obviously that word is very important to you. Well, I can see that being a really important part of your conversation in schools. I’ve heard Brene Brown speak on this. She goes into middle schools, to actually speak about belonging because so many students feel that they don’t belong, even in their own families, which may sometimes speak more to their age and stage of life but still, it’s hard. And I wonder if in some sense, belonging is even necessary before the actions of compassion.
Tim Huff – Absolutely
Rachel Cram – You talk about seeing the world through the eyes of children. I’m just wondering as parents how do we get ourselves back into those eyes?
Tim Huff – Yeah, well if our kids are afraid to tell us what they’re thinking. We’re not going to see through their eyes.
Rachel Cram – Why do you think kids are afraid to tell us what they’re thinking? What have you seen when you’re in the schools?
Tim Huff – Well some children would be embarrassed that what they think is stupid. Or, some kids are confused and they don’t want to bring up things that they don’t understand. That’s where I think a parent or an educator’s humility goes so far, where we say, “You know what, I don’t even know the answer. Let me tell you what I think.”
You know when we do the fear and anxiety stuff we talk about this project called fears in a jar. And we as a family are going to put a jar and we’re all going to write down our fears and where to put them in a jar. It’s not just the kids are going to write out their fears and put them in the jar, mom and dad are going to do too. And we’re going to pull them out at supper every night. We’ll do one fear we’ll see whichever one comes out and we will discuss this fear. And sometimes it’s the child’s fear but sometimes it’s Mommy or Daddy’s fear. And it’s okay to have these conversations.
I think the other thing too and you started here in the interview; tell me about your childhood experiences. I think sometimes we need to remember our childhoods, for better for worse. I think it’s important to go back and recall what we felt in those moments, what we felt at those times, precious moments from childhood that you remember, about who impacts you and your life right.
I had more bad teachers than good teachers. There’s no doubt about it in my life that I had more poor teachers than good teachers. But I’m telling you, the teachers that we’re special to me, they were life changing to me as a little boy.
Rachel Cram – Can you give an example?
Tim Huff – Sure. My kindergarten teacher,
Rachel Cram – I love this story. I wanted you to do this story.
Tim Huff – This about Mrs. Watson?
Rachel Cram – Yes and the clown on the wall.
Tim Huff – Yeah yeah.
Rachel Cram – This is a great story.
Tim Huff – Bless you for reading all my stuff. Holy Smoke.
Rachel Cram – My pleasure.
Tim Huff – Ok, I went to H.J. Alexander public school in Weston and my kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Watson and as I remember her she was quite old and we had talked about circuses and we were all going to do an art project. And so we were given paper plates and crayons. And on the paper plates we could draw anything we wanted that was about a circus. And so I drew a big clown’s face on my paper plate then we were all to put our paper plates on Mrs. Watson’s desk and file out and go out for recess. And when I came in I was just shocked because over the door was my picture and only my pie plate.
And during recess she had made a big red nose and a tissue paper collar because she loved my face so much and she put it up there. Well I’m telling you, I remember that day like it was yesterday. And by the time I was twelve years old, I was selling comic strips to magazines to make money. And then by the time I was seventeen, I was accepted into the animation course at Sheridan College, world renowned animation course. And the first day I walked into that course I was in tears thinking about Mrs. Watson. All those years earlier. That my course was charted because one teacher took one recess break to celebrate me.
Rachel Cram – Earlier, you mentioned the void in society of gentleness and, what was the other word that you used? Gentleness and
Tim Huff – And goodness,
Rachel Cram – Yeah, gentleness and goodness. And listening to that story, it can seem like a small thing to acknowledge a child’s pie plate clown, to celebrate something so minor but I think this is an example of a daily gentleness and goodness.
Tim Huff – Yeah. There’s a theme to the compassion series that I’ve been using for years; that if we are remembered for this, this will be the greatest legacy we could possibly have. Three things. Bring hope. Serve well and Celebrate. That this is who we are called to be.
And if we bring hope, the only way to really bring hope is to actually walk alongside. If you were really struggling with school and someone said, “Oh I hope you do well getting through that,” that’s different than someone who brings hope by saying, “I hope you do well. Can I come and help you study? Can I help prepare you?”
So now you’re not just being hopeful, you’re bringing that hope to them. They still have to do the work but you’re walking with them.
And the serving well, we’re never called to serve, we’re always called to serve well. We’re always asked to serve at the best capacity we can. And then to celebrate. Everyday celebrate someone or something. What is one thing I can celebrate? One person? Or one thing? And once we celebrate one another, great compassion grows out of that.
When I was working in the group home with young adults with disabilities we would celebrate the tiniest things. But I’m telling you it was like the end of the Olympics like fireworks went off. We learned how to celebrate and celebrate these small victories.
For the frontline street workers who I want to make sure in this interview I give tribute to because we spent a lot of time on homelessness, they have to celebrate the small victories. I left so many young people on the streets. I failed so many times but you just would quit if you didn’t celebrate the small victories. And sometimes it would be that a young person after ten years on the streets finally tells you his story. There’s my small victory. So I don’t think that’s different than all of our lives. We have to celebrate our small victories. We have to celebrate them in front of our children and with our children. We have to find ways to celebrate small victories.
Rachel Cram – That could be a wrap I think. I think that could be our wrap right there. Tim I love that. Bring hope. Serve well. Celebrate. I think we’re going to end there. Thank you so much for your time today. I have so enjoyed talking with you.
Tim Huff – Thank you Rachel. It has been a really really lovely experience getting to talk with you and working with you and Roy on this. I’m really appreciative. Bless you.
Rachel Cram – Thank you so much.
An award-winning best seller and the first book in the children’s Compassion Series. The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge offers the impetus for a dynamic and interactive elementary school program, encouraging children to look at their world through the lens of compassion and understanding, rather than assumption, judgment or fear. Tim believes that when we nurture compassion from a child in one area of life, the potential is great that it will spill over into all other areas. Tim Huff addresses the complex issues of homelessness in this book and disabilities in his next. Tim combines tender and honest prose with bright and bold illustrations, which are complemented by the insights and wisdom of his professional peers, educators, moms and dads.
It has been called one of the greatest tragedies of our time. In an age of prosperity and plenty, hundreds of thousands of people continue to find themselves destitute and homeless. Bent Hope was born out of Tim Huff’s unique and extensive twenty-year ministry among homeless and street-involved youth and adults in Toronto, Canada. It is a collection of thoughtful narratives birthed beneath crumbling bridges and in the hidden alcoves of darkened alleyways. Each chapter reveals a unique life-story―unpredictable, intriguing and compelling. These gripping true-life stories surface quietly from unforgiving corridors of fear, hurt and uncertainty that unexpectedly and supernaturally transform into fascinating places of intimacy and godly anticipation.